Vikram Dasgupta’s new short film Calcutta Taxi has been the toast of the festival circuit this year, as it seems to be picking up awards wherever it screens.
We caught up with the director to talk about the film, the real life story that inspired the film and what lies ahead.
- Calcutta Taxi is the new short so can you tell me a little bit about it?
I am originally from Calcutta and Delhi, but I have been in Canada for the last sixteen years. It is based on a true story that actually took place when I was studying fine art when I was in Calcutta. My backpack was stolen and the film is about what happened that day.
The short film is a little more than that as it is from three different perspectives; the story of me losing my backpack, the cab driver who helped me find it and the third is the cab driven who stole it. Therefore, it is three stories around the same backpack.
- You are in the director's chair and have penned the screenplay so where did this project start for you? Why did you want to tell this personal story? I read that it has taken many years to be made into a film.
Yes. It never started out as a film, it was just a story that I would recite to my friends for many years. It was funny because it is just a collection of weird coincidences that went down that day. It is one of those things that is so coincidental that it almost sounds written.
After I moved to Canada, I didn’t tell that story to too many people, because I thought that they would not get the sensibilities from back home or the humour. However, when I did tell it to a friend of mine and she found it funny and told me that I had to write it down.
I started writing just the first story; I wrote it more as a scene and I never thought that it was going to be a film or anything like that. Then I started to elaborate on it. I was interested in writing the perspective of the cab drivers; what would the story be behind the man who wanted to help me? And what would be the story of the man who stole it in the first place?
It never started out a film, but more as a conversation piece. However, when you start telling a story the better it gets the more that you tell it; that happens without you even knowing it. You can see the bits that work from the reactions, and the bits that don’t work are edited.
The story got better by the audience as I told it for over ten years, so when I started writing, it was a pretty well rounded and developed tale. Therefore, I think I did have that to may advantage.
- What is so interesting about this film is it may be about looking for a lost bag - but I actually thought it was about looking for more than that, a search for identity almost. I wondered how much you would agree with that?
Yes, that is absolutely right. People always ask me ‘how you summarise Calcutta Taxi?’ I always tell them that it is a lost and found story; where people lose something but find something that they didn’t know that they were looking.
Sometimes you find yourself, what your beliefs are made of and what you really are; the backpack is just symbolic. So, that is absolutely correct. Thank you for seeing that in the film.
- The film marks your directorial debut, so how did you find making the move into the director's chair?
I have done other things before such as one-minute long films. Making films and directing films and telling stories is something that I have wanted to do since I was eight years old.
My inspiration is my grandmother as she was the best storyteller; she could make the most mundane story of going to get the milk sound like an adventure. Since filmmaking is the medium of the century, I naturally progressed to wanting to be a filmmaker.
- Calcutta Taxi follows the lives of three main characters, so what were you looking for when you were casting these roles?
The casting process was tough. When you are writing it you do imagine the characters in a certain way, and so I did have them in mind. I then had my wish list. When I was in talks with Bravo and pitched as a short film, they loved it but they rejected it because the actors had to be comedians. Then it was a quite a tough task for me to find actors in Canada who could play those roles. Then I cam across Anand Rajaram, he plays one of the cab drivers, and I could not have asked for a better actor. He was such a joy.
He has spoilt me now because I don’t know who I can work with actors that of a less calibre. He learnt the language; he learnt how to drive standard. He is the cab driver who stole my backpack, and he really is the film.
Vipin Sharma is a very big actor back home right now and is doing lots of work. He is a comedian. Therefore, we had Vipin and Anand and we had Sunnie D’Souza and they were a really great cast. However, I started out looking for other people - a bit like the story really - it worked out for us.
The casting process for the rest of Calcutta Taxis crew and cast was very different. The leads were Canadian, but everyone else was from Calcutta. That was a very tedious process because of the sheer volume of people that we have.
I was very clear about the kind of people, physical appearance and the kind of voice that I wanted. Delivery for me is 90% acting and if the delivery isn’t there then it doesn’t matter how close they look to the character they can never be it.
During casting I would listen to people deliver the lines with my eyes closed to see if they sounded the role. You can look a certain part and you can be made to look a certain part, but if you don’t sound the part you can’t pull it off.
The casting back home was very impulsive, intuitive and by the gut; it was very different to the casting process that we went through in Canada.
- The film is shot in Calcutta and you shoot on the streets a lot, so what challenges did that pose?
That is a loaded question (laughs). First of all, you cannot fake Calcutta, it is the belly of the beast and you can’t recreate that. You are trying to show age and broken place that has been mended to work.
The film also talks about the people and the society of a city that is constantly reinventing, changing, and becoming more grimy, gritty and beautiful. Without a doubt, we couldn’t shoot Calcutta Taxi and not film in Calcutta.
The challenges were… if you were to go to Calcutta and go out to get a cup of tea, that would be a challenge. We almost died; I was in the hospital after the film, my DP was on a drip. However, that was just the physical part because emotionally it was also a struggle.
My cinematographer has never really seen that much poverty in one scene; he is an Irish guy who has never left Canada. He was shocked all of the time. We were all grown men in our forties, and we were all in tears; I don’t mean metaphorically. He would see things that he had not seen before that shook his existence, or it was the mere pressure of the city that doesn’t understand what you are trying to do or why you are trying to do it.
When they see four white guys on set, they think it is a Danny Boyle film and that we are funded by some big studio. We are just a mixed multicultural group who are trying to make the best film we can for literally no money. You have to go through the grind and you have to make them believe it; the only way to make them believe it is for them to see you go through the mud.
We fought with everyone and one another and we loved everyone. It was like going through a war. We would do it as a drop of a hat next time. Filming is like growing up. You learn that you are never good enough, but you do try to be the best that you can, next time we will try to be a little better.
- The movie has been picking up awards left, right and centre on the festival circuit, so how have you personally been finding the response to the film? How have you found your whole festival experience?
The festival experience has been unexpected; we didn’t think our little film would be going to these festivals and people would really be connecting to it. People have been gravitating to it and it seems to be resonating with people of all ages and cultures. We screened our film with an audience of fifteen and an audience of 1,500, in both cases the reactions have been spectacular.
Every time I see the film in a different country, I see it in a different way because the audience of that place reacts differently to the film. I think that we understand a little more about the film by watching it with them, and a little bit more about ourselves.
Therefore, every screening has helped us understand our film a little better. It is interesting to see how people relate to the character and they want to become part of a journey. It has been good.
- Finally what is next for you? Are you going to stick with shorts or are you interested in moving into features?
Short film for a filmmaker is really a calling card. When I was writing this I felt that there was a lot of story in it, and I feel that the short doesn’t do it justice; you are really only seeing a small glimpse of the lives of the people that we see. I would definitely love to do a feature.
I think it would be easier for me to go the short film route right now, as I think it will be easier to find the money. However, I am trying not to think about the length or the format and I am just trying to write the story. It is a story that needs to be told and will be told in whatever format finds it.